On the spot where the long-shuttered Rat once stood is Eastern Standard, in the Hotel Commonwealth. It’s mere blocks from Fenway Park in Kenmore Square, a beer guzzler’s Shangri-La. Garrett Harker, Lynch’s former business partner, opened this gorgeous brasserie, where bartenders crank out exquisite cocktails with top-rate craft spirits, in 2005. It set off the rejuvenation of the long scrappy Kenmore and, with that, the democratization of craft cocktails.
“People respond to something that’s well made and handcrafted,” Harker told me. “I watched the cocktail become exclusive. . . . We wanted to do something that’s accessible at any level and give it the same attention the chefs give to the food in the kitchen.”
The democratization continued when Harker opened Island Creek Oyster Bar at the other end of the sprawling Commonwealth in 2010. It was with a voracious midwinter craving for seafood that a friend and I arrived at this very modern re-imagining (lobster roe noodles, oysters, drop ceilings, a wall of 37 oyster cages, each densely packed with thousands of polished oyster shells) of the very classic New England seafood joint.
As we sat at the bar watching oyster shuckers at work, a bartender asked us what spirit we were in the mood for. In keeping with our warm weather longings, “tequila” was my nearly reflexive response. He reappeared minutes later with a thrilling off-menu concoction. He strained it into my glass and explained the piquant mix: tequila, muddled cucumber, agave syrup, cinnamon syrup, fresh lime and grapefruit juice. A trace of Sriracha curbs the sweetness. The finale? A few quick twists of a pepper mill. The margarita-like underpinning was familiar and comforting; all the embellishments made it an imaginative thrill, and a delightful aperitif before a plate of lustrous oysters arrived.
When we finished, we were escorted next door to the Hawthorne, the third of Harker’s tippling trinity at the hotel. This subterranean den is decked out with plush couches and chairs, dark wood furniture and glass tables, to give it a snug yet classy living-room feel. And the surgeon-caliber attention that the spiffy barkeeps give to the most ethereal gin fizz I’ve had since my last visit to New Orleans seals the deal, making anyone feel like the guest of honor.
Most Bostonians wouldn’t consider O Ya an option for a casual sip, but this swanky (and pricey) nouveau sushi boîte has a laid-back charm. This is where the gracious Nancy Cushman, sake guru and co-owner with her husband, chef Tim Cushman, another Beard winner, will regale you with the nuances of the sakes in her collection — from earthy varieties and delicate fruit-forward types to unfiltered styles with a “cooling effect,” all served in your choice of ceramic vessel.
This is where she’ll warn you of the “googly-eye effect” caused by the gem-size sushi bites, especially when paired with the right sake. This is where she’ll try to explain the elusive flavor of umami, and you’ll conclude that umami is best explained the way Justice Potter Stewart famously defined pornography: You know it when you see it.
This is where you’ll sit at the sushi counter and watch the sushi chefs prepare morsels such as hamachi with banana pepper mousse and a sprinkling of truffle oil. The delicate fish gets its gloss and rich flavor after being flamed with — you guessed it — a blowtorch.
Weisstuch is a freelance writer based in Boston and New York.